Revolution is a deceptive idea because it is the social and political equivalent of a guy having a midlife crisis, leaving his family for a new young woman, getting a new house, new car; but once he surveys the carnage his decisions inspired, the fact that his kids hate him and he can’t keep up sexually with his 21-year-old secretary, regret begins to set in, he becomes nostalgic for the past, and there is no reclaiming what has been lost.
I read an article on Iran a couple months ago that asked why the people don’t stage another revolution, and the answer from multiple Iranians was more or less, “We already had a revolution, and what’s to say another won’t disappoint us just as much?” It is a telling thought, a reminder that the United States hasn’t had a true revolution since the Civil War over 150 years ago. With every successive generation, the prospect of reshaping society becomes less associated with warfare and more associated with symbolism, nostalgia, romanticism, until it reaches its most vague and empty stage: sloganeering.
The Civil Rights movement had the potential to become a full-blown armed conflict, and nearly did, but legislation, first to appease Civil Rights activists and later to defang that progress in underhanded, subtle ways, calmed the black working class enough that, by 1970, the racial strife of a decade earlier had been neutered to the point that, decades later, even the riots over police violence in L.A., Ferguson, and Baltimore did not alter the status quo. They were just violent outbursts, ones which were later contained, first by local politicians who put a band-aid on the tensions, and later by activists who turned racial injustice into a slogan.
These are important distinctions, because they show a society that has not hit rock bottom, a status quo that is effectively staying afloat, no matter how shaky the waters. To fight a full-blown revolution requires the capacity, even the desire, to kill for your cause. The act of killing is something the average civilian cannot bring themselves to do (thankfully, since we don’t want a bunch of cold-blooded killers running the streets, shooting and stabbing whomever over political disputes). And killing for a cause requires a level of desperation that the United States has effectively muted and manipulated for centuries.
Yet revolution remains a vague concept, a romantic concept, full of myths and blind spots. Perhaps the biggest myth is revolution as a panacea. Just look at Cuba and Puerto Rico, for proof. While gaining independence from Spain did not free Cuba and Puerto Rico from colonial control, but rather transferred it to the United States (and then, in Cuba’s case, from U.S to Russian control), the same could be said of the rest of Latin America. Great Britain effectively replaced Spain in the Southern Cone countries, even orchestrating the horrific War of the Triple Alliance, when Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay invaded Paraguay to benefit British shipping interests. And France meddled so much with Mexico it even briefly turned the country into a European-run monarchy.
But more important than external meddling was internal social stagnation. The social strata of colonial Latin American societies didn’t change after independence; independence merely eliminated one level of bureaucracy. Without Spain as a common enemy, the unjust class system that remained became a focal point of civil strife that undermined economic and political progress.
Post-colonial sovereignty does not guarantee progress, or a re-alignment of society that makes society more egalitarian. And the people on the losing end of these conflicts often tell themselves that only if their side had won, things would be different.
The biggest blindspot in the Cuban-American narrative is the convenient watering down or complete elimination of what life under Batista was like before the Cuban Revolution, and therefore why the revolution happened to begin with. A review of the film The Lost City, directed by Andy Garcia, mentions this issue by stating that the viewer would be forgiven for concluding that peasant revolts occurred for no reason. Pre-revolutionary Cuba is always depicted as a paradise until those pesky communists came around. This narrative was created by the early wave of Cubans, made up largely of rich people who supported or were part of the Batista government. Of course they wouldn’t admit that they had supported a dictator, nor would any of them admit to having committed war crimes, though undoubtedly war criminals were among them. And now that they were being hosted by a democratic country, if pressed to account for Batista’s tyranny, they would find some way to denounce both Batista and Castro, and praise democracy.
But this is pure myth. If the first wave of wealthy Cubans hated Batista’s tyranny so much, why didn’t they leave, when they had no problem leaving under Castro? Why didn’t they pressure the United States to overthrow his regime the way they did with Castro? Instead of answering these questions (though the answer is obvious — they benefited from Batista), these Cubans pretended to have been democratic all along, and said they wanted Cuba to become a democracy. However, the truth was obvious for anyone who wanted to see it: they were democrats out of convenience, just as they had supported a capitalist dictatorship out of convenience. Their beef with Castro was that he had put an end to Batista’s mob-run narco state that upheld their enormous wealth at the expense of common people and Afro-Cubans especially.
It is nice to think that, had the Bay of Pigs invasion worked, Batista’s supporters would have turned the country into an American-style democracy, but other examples of American-backed governments in Latin America, especially during the Cold War, say otherwise. We don’t even have to use other countries as an example of what would have happened if Castro were overthrown; we can look at Cuba itself.
Batista was the last of a long line of capitalist dictators in Cuba who allowed the U.S. to plunder its resources. Twentieth-century Cuban history largely consists of the U.S. overthrowing any government who questioned its dominance, which is how Batista came to power. So it is safe to say that overthrowing Castro would have led to a reestablishment of a capitalist dictatorship, just as it had happened in Haiti, the D.R., Guatemala, and later on, Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Colombia. To suggest otherwise is to ignore history, and to ignore the motives of the first wave of Cuban refugees.
It is fortunate for the United States that its own revolution happened in the 18th century instead of the 20th or 21st. The American Revolution is depicted in school history books as a bloodless, gentlemanly affair, that just happened to kill an estimated 200,000 people. The Americans also took possession of the land and property of British loyalists, and forced thousands of them into exile under threat of imprisonment or death for treason — basically the same thing Castro did, but being that it was the 18th century, the complaints of those poor Americans forced to leave their country don’t have books and movies and an entire political class dedicated to their cause.
Does anyone even care about those people? They of course had audiences in Great Britain at the time, but try telling an American today that George Washington was a tyrant who stole land from the losing side of a war, and see how far that gets you. Could you imagine the firestorm on Twitter? On Facebook?
“History is written by the victors,” and this is true in Havana. If Miami Cubans have been successful in promoting a myth that overlooks their authoritarian past, the Castro regime has successfully created a myth of a benevolent yet ever-present state whose decisions, however harsh or difficult, are for the betterment of the common good. The Revolution was honorable and every decision in its aftermath was wise and thoughtful, never reactionary or paranoid.
To see the city for myself last year was to see a distorted looking-glass of how the United States sees itself. This was anti-capitalist myth-making, something I had only heard about in books, movies, and the occasional leftist speech. I was enchanted by the prevalence of artwork in the city, the way the country exalts its artists and authors; the way education is so highly treasured, medical care so accessible, and militarism downplayed and not fetishized as it is in the U.S. It is a society of high ideals. It is also a society of streets and buildings that look like they were air raided the day before. Where alcoholic beverages are watered down to make it more affordable. Where poverty is pervasive. Where money is tight, and opportunities low. But the government is always your friend. Until you say the wrong thing.
In the name of preserving law and order, Cuba steps on its own good deeds, and undermines its myth.
But do the indifferent at best and malevolent at worst governments of the West offer better alternatives? All countries have corruption, and political violence, and injustice, but capitalist countries are given the benefit of the doubt. Capitalist countries can afford to be flawed. Capitalist politicians can lie and steal and win re-election, without the system itself being questioned. This begs the question: If we can’t have a democracy, could we at least have a capitalist dictator?
Watching from the sidelines, Puerto Rico mulls its future. Its past has been awful enough. The U.S. bankrupted us, by which I mean my fellow Boricuas, then our corrupt politicians bankrupted us more. We are currently under a technical dictatorship called the Financial Control Board. We have no say over our finances or our political future. We are pawns for U.S. politicians. Trump has been an ass to us, so now the Democrats suddenly are very, very concerned about the island and its recovery. But when Trump goes, so will those U.S. politicians who currently give a crap about us. American Latinos want us as poster children for their cause to integrate into the American fabric, instead of taking up the mantle of freeing us from colonialism. We are a toy to be tossed around and placed in other people’s images.
But is the alternative worse? After we fight our revolution, with untold quantities of freshly dug graves, will we just be passed along to another empire, or will we be free in name only?
Growing up on and off the island, I often heard the refrain from family that we feared becoming like Cuba. I used to think that meant my relatives didn’t want to be communists. Later I thought they meant they didn’t want our people to be punished by the U.S. Now that I have been there, I would say I would like Puerto Rico find itself in some sort of middle: for the island to be half of what Cuba is — the half that dedicates itself to medicine, the arts, and education — with the other half being a country that still allows free speech and free movement.
I think it can be done. New myths can be made. And hopefully when Puerto Rico is free, our new, free government won’t be overthrown and replaced with a dictator, capitalist or otherwise.
Featured image: “La Caballería” by Raúl Corrales Forno, a photograph depicting Castro’s victorious rebels in January 1959.